I was asked recently what my #1 piece of advice would be for two organizations coming together after a merger.  My answer:  It’s all about how you handle “us” and “them.”

It was 2006 and I was sitting in the large, opulent, mid-western office of a senior insurance company executive.  His company had just merged with another.  We were talking about his hopes and aspirations for the new company and also about his concerns.   After a while, he summed up what he saw as my task as their facilitator: “if only you could get rid of us versus them, everything would be fine.”

I figure he had a good point.  If I could get rid of “us” and “them,” I’d have solved prejudice, ended war, and probably made good headway on poverty too.  Unfortunately, we’ve got about a hundred thousand years of evolution behind our in-group and out-group behavior and there wasn’t much chance I (or anyone else) was going to fix that in a two-day session.

The Alternative

So if you can’t just wave a magic wand and create a smiling, happy new team, how do you start the process of bringing the group together?

The answer is that you don’t erase old groups, you just create new ones.  Think about it. What groups do you consider yourself a part of?  Who is included in your “us” category? People at your company, alumni from your college, red heads, accountants, people who like Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream (to be clear, the Chunky Monkey would put you decidedly in the “them” group for me)?  Exactly! You’re too complex to have only one tribe. And it’s not like citizenship, you don’t have to give up membership in one group to be a part of another.

The same is true in organizations.  Although the most obvious and salient grouping at the start of an integration is which legacy company you come from, there are many other ways you identify that can become the basis of new groupings that cross the old organizational boundaries.

For example, if you’re a member of the finance team, you probably have as much in common with someone in Finance from the other organization as you do with line leaders in your own organization. As soon as possible, find a reason to bring the finance people together to work on something meaningful.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be work related either.  Are there natural groupings that cut across the two organizations based on where you live, which workplace activities or committees you are on, or which professional associations you are a member of? Use those informal opportunities to create a connection with one of your new teammates.

Because you can’t get rid of us and them, you need to create formal and informal ways to establish new, cross-organizational groups that provide a new version of “us.”  (And while you’re at it, ban the phrase “that’s not how WE used to do it” permanently.)

For further reading

If you want to see how little it takes to create a new in-group and how scary it is when “us and them” goes wrong, read about Sherif’s pioneering In-Group and Out-Group Study here.

Further Reading

How do you Integrate a New Member onto an Existing Team?

Preparing for a New Leader

How to I Enlist my Teammates to Change our Team for the Better?

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